Yesterday, I kicked off this year’s ‘Back to School’ series featuring the Hurricanes prospects below the AHL level with an article on 2017 first-rounder Martin Necas.
The time spent over the past couple weeks looking at the Hurricanes prospect list and recent NHL drafts started me thinking about the trends and changes since Ron Francis took the helm as the Hurricanes general manager. With four years of draft picks under Ron Francis, we have a decent sample of draft data to least begin to try to identify Francis’ strategies and tendencies.
Francis’ most basic strategy aimed at building a strong prospect pool has been to collect and use as many draft picks as possible.
But beyond the obvious, a few other trends have emerged.
Francis as his own man
With the first draft pick under his leadership, Francis charted a new course by selecting defenseman Haydn Fleury early in the first round. Especially in the salary cap era, previous general manager Jim Rutherford showed and even spoke about a preference not to take defensemen early. The rationale was that they generally took longer to develop and therefore there was not as much value to be gained from having good players on inexpensive entry-level contracts.
Less striking and as stark of a contrast from Rutherford is Francis’ approach to goaltending. After the emergence of Cam Ward, Rutherford selected a goalie in only four goalies in eight, netting six total. In only four years, Francis has selected five goalies and has taken at least one in each year. Part of it could be the fact that the Hurricanes had a young #1 netminder in Ward during many of Rutherford’s drafts, but Francis’ rate for selecting goalies is enough higher that there is at least the beginning of a trend.
Searching off the beaten path
The other thing that jumps out to me from looking at the three drafts under Francis is the relatively high number of selections from outside of the biggest Canadian hockey hot beds.
My hunch (and that is all it is) is that this could be at least partly the influence of Eric Tulsky.
Here is my hunch for what is going on…At a basic level, drafting well relative to other NHL teams is a function of two things. First, foremost and most simply, the name of the game is to correctly rank and select the best players. Second and maybe a bit more subtle is a potential edge to be gained by having a better read on players playing in places where they receive less visibility and potentially where it is easier to find hidden gems.
If a great prospect comes out of the Toronto area playing in the Ontario Hockey League, he will receive a boat load of visibility and be well known to virtually every team. Such a player would generally be easier to scout because he is based in a hockey hot bed where every team has scouts and also because he would receive a ton of ice time against higher-end competition for his age group.
But if instead a great young prospect comes out of say Italy or France, he is going to receive significantly less visibility. The potentially elite prospects still bubble up partly from playing in international tournaments that the scouting community nearly unanimously sees. But my thinking is that the different leagues, geographic proximity and coverage relative to North America and the significantly different levels of competition make most middle round European prospects less well understood compared to their North American counterparts. The result is that many of these players could be undervalued relative to a similar caliber North American player who gets more mind share and visibility.
Ideally, a more in-depth review would do some measurements of draft picks by league/geography to determine the probability of players from different leagues/geographies making (and excelling in) the NHL and might even measure that as a percent of potential draft eligible players. But at a more basic level, it seems reasonable to at least slightly adjust geographic preference to reflect the fact that less visibility has decent potential to lead to more value.
The simple math behind the ‘off the beaten path’ strategy
In reviewing Francis’ four drafts and 32 draft picks since taking over as general manager of the Hurricanes, he and his scouting staff have demonstrated a willingness to regularly look outside of the hockey hot beds to find talent.
Europe: Only time will tell if 2017 was just an anomaly, but the Hurricanes 2017 draft was decidedly European with four out of eight players from overseas. Francis’ first three drafts saw only two European players taken, but just maybe the success of Sebastian Aho and to some degree Janne Kuokkanen partly drove the shift.
Non-OHL juniors: In addition, Francis and his team have picked regularly from the Western (WHL) and Quebec Major Junior (QMJHL) leagues. Players from these leagues are scouted pretty heavily in North American, but the level of exposure still is not that of the Ontario Hockey League prospects. Eleven of the 17 Canadian junior players selected by Francis and his team have hailed from the WHL or QMJHL.
The relatively small sample size makes it impossible to draw definitive conclusions, but I do think that Francis selections do provide clues to his strategy.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What, if anything, do you make of the high number of European players selected by the Hurricanes in 2017 NHL Draft? Do you think there is something to this or is it more randomly how the chips fell?
2) Do you think there could be something to be said for trying to find value in geographies/leagues with somewhat less visibility?
3) Do you see any other trends in Francis’ four drafts?